What to Do with Student Evaluation Feedback

The student evaluation of teaching process can produce anxiety in instructors at all career stages. No matter how confident you are in your teaching, being evaluated can feel as though your teaching style, pedagogy, and even personality are being put under a microscope. Turning this anxiety into a productive process for your class can be as simple as reframing how you look at results and what you do with the information provided. This blog post will provide guidance about some best practices for before, during, and after the administration of student evaluations of teaching.

Before and During the Administration of Evaluations

In order to successfully utilize the other suggestions provided in this article, you need to be sure you frame student evaluations effectively with your students. According to Ballantyne, Borthwick, and Packer (2000), students are ambivalent about the usefulness of teaching feedback, but research shows that they believe using feedback for the improvement of teaching is the best possible outcome for completing Student Evaluations of Teaching.  This finding provides a useful place to start in framing your discussion with your students. Several weeks before student evaluations of teaching will be sent out by the university, begin discussing the process with your students. Let them know how they will be evaluating you. Will you provide time in class and leave the room? Will they complete the evaluations on their own time? Will you provide all students with an incentive (e.g., an extra credit point) if the class achieves a certain response rate threshold?

[Note: Check out this other CATL post for more specific ways to boost your student response rates. ]

After you have primed your students to complete the feedback form, inform them how this information will be used. Getting a high rate of thoughtful responses is a goal, and this will likely not happen unless students understand that these responses are important to you and that they will be used to improve your teaching practice. No one wants to complete a task that has no bearing on anything. Students may be led to believe that their feedback on the end of the course evaluation doesn’t hold any weight, so let them know why they should complete it. If you review their comments and make changes to your course, let them know that. If you believe evaluation is important to your career, let them know that. Give your students a reason to want to complete the form. It is important that you are clear that the student evaluation of teaching is important to you. Students are unlikely to find value in an evaluation if you do not.

[Note: Because of the time frame of end-of-semester student evaluations, the feedback they provide can’t be used to improve your current class. This is a reason that doing your own mid-semester evaluation is a great idea, so that you can make course corrections where it seems necessary. See this other blog post for some ideas about how to collect mid-semester feedback.]

Once You Receive Feedback

Don’t focus on the negative

It is human nature to read reviews and focus on one negative comment, even when you have 100 positive comments. You might even find yourself trying to guess at the identity of those outliers who are concerned about one portion of your class or one comment you made, even when the rest of the responses are overwhelmingly positive. This isn’t to say that you should not pay attention to negative comments, but don’t let them define your performance in a class. Don’t overcorrect, especially if you don’t have significant evidence to show that the issue is really a problem. Be aware of the potential for instructor identity-related bias in student ratings, as well (Buser, Batz-Barbarich, & Kearns Hayter, 2022). Give yourself time to think and process through negative comments before deciding what really is the best way to proceed.

Set your standards

Before you look at your feedback, define for yourself what strong performance looks like. For example,  if most of your feedback returns as “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” on the Likert scale items, you may preemptively decide that would be a positive result. Review the feedback you are given and look for trends. Reflect honestly on your practices if you see areas that come up as consistent areas of weakness. While you cannot please everyone, it is important to note where trends occur that show a potential area for growth.

It’s also important to know that students and faculty often don’t perceive excellence in teaching in the same way. (Spooren et al, 2013). Students may focus on factors that are irrelevant to effective teaching and instead base their evaluations on perceived workload, ability to achieve an “easy A” or any number of factors that don’t actually impact teaching and learning.  For this reason, faculty may ignore feedback as “meaningless,” when it could actually be beneficial to their teaching practice. Be conscious of this potential reasoning trap and think through your feedback, and what you may be able to change.

Don’t try to go it alone

Taking your feedback and meeting with a trusted colleague can be a helpful and beneficial activity. Colleagues, especially those who are more seasoned, will often have experienced many of the issues you are having. If you are disappointed in specific results, talk through your teaching process with colleagues and identify potential areas for growth, or discuss what might have caused the feedback you are unhappy with. Reflecting and talking through these scenarios can help you see clearly what you might want to fix or how to ensure better feedback and a better experience for your students.

Commit to using the feedback

“Student evaluation of teaching (SET) only becomes an effective tool for improving teaching and learning when the relevant stakeholders seriously consider and plan appropriate actions according to student feedback” (Wong & Moni, 2014, p. 397). This passage accurately demonstrates the need for something to happen with feedback once it is collected. It is easy and possibly natural to assume that feedback collected and provided after the end of the semester has limited usefulness. While that feedback cannot provide a better experience for the students who shared it, it can be used to improve your instruction going forward. Consider the input from your students, and be conscious of where that feedback leads you, even if it’s in a different direction for your course. It is not a sign of weakness to accept feedback and make changes. It is the natural progression of an educator devoted to excellence.

Recognize there is an institutional context to evaluation

Although it is natural to focus on course evaluations as a process that occurs between you and your students, the reality is that these tools are used in decision-making, and you are not the only one with access to the results. The standard UWGB course evaluation is used for most classes, and not only you, but administrators such as your Chair and the Associate Provost, have access to the results. Those summaries are used in tenure, promotion, and contract renewal decisions, and UW System also requires gathering student feedback on teaching in our courses (see p. 106 of the Faculty Handbook for policy).

What does all this mean? Well, first, student evaluations are clearly valued at UWGB and beyond. They are not, however, the only means for documenting and improving teaching and learning. The Faculty Handbook also points to other sources, such as peer observation, samples of syllabi and assessments, self-reflection, and engagement in professional development (p. 93). Assemble that information in a teaching portfolio, regularly reflect on your own teaching, invite peer feedback, and participate in educational development opportunities (such as CATL workshops!). Second, since you know others will have access to results, talk to them! Seek out your chair, talk through the evaluations, and learn more about how your unit tends to use them administratively. Finally, remember in the end this should all be about enhancing student learning. If the standard UWGB evaluation does not give you the information you feel you need to improve your course and the student experience, you can always administer a supplemental evaluation on your own. And if you need assistance with any of these issues, remember that CATL is here to help!

Scaffolding for Online Learning

As the end of the semester approaches and you begin to review the curricular structure of your courses in the near future, you may recognize the need for more robust scaffolding in content design regarding the online modality. Before reviewing and modifying your course in this capacity, it is important to know what scaffolding is, and why it is important for student learning. Scaffolding, as EdGlossary defines it in education, refers to ‘a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process’. Ultimately, the goal of scaffolding is to give students building blocks of learning that lead to better retention and acquisition of knowledge.

The most common place to start with scaffolding that can provide a significant impact is in larger assignments or assessments. A good ‘rule of thumb’ is to begin with the tasks that take a significant portion of time and energy. Breaking an assessment into smaller subtasks creates natural checkpoints for the students to gauge their understanding. This also allows you as the teacher to gain insight into how their knowledge acquisition is going and allows you to slightly alter course if the learning is not going as first imagined – check out CATL’s blog post on ‘small teaching’ for more information on that topic.

For example, if you are requiring students to ultimately create a final essay project, you could create a scaffolded or sequenced set of checkpoints to build towards the final assignment’s conclusion. The University of Michigan’s Center for Writing has a comprehensive breakdown of this sequencing:

  1. Pre-Writing: including proposals, work-in-progress presentations, and research summaries
  2. Writing: including counterarguments, notes, and drafts
  3. Revision: including peer reviews, conferences, and revision plans

The introduction of any of these concepts in an online environment requires intentionality and planning, while ensuring the students remain highly engaged throughout the process. As the students revise their papers, scheduling individual conferences, peer reviews (via online conferences, social annotations via Hypothesis, or via Canvas), and revision plans can all provide beneficial steps for a scaffolded approach to a final essay project. To ensure that the students are understanding what is required of them, be certain that you answer such critical questions as:

  • How are students able to know that they completed the steps required, and how will they know they have completed it satisfactorily?
  • How will you make the connections between the scaffolded activities and the end product clear as students progress systematically through the courses?
  • Have you clearly identified opportunities for students, particularly in the online modality, to get together remotely for feedback, thought-partnering, and/or review?

Another version of scaffolding in the online modality has to do with the structuring of how students gain an understanding of the content. The University of Buffalo’s Office of Curriculum, Assessment, and Teaching Transformation takes the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) model and utilizes it in both a standard classroom, as well as a ‘flipped classroom’ environment. The GRR model focuses on an ‘I Do’, ‘We Do’, ‘You Do’ framework that is very popular in educational scaffolding. This framework for scaffolding could be centered around a larger assignment or exam, but it does not necessarily need to be. The GRR model of scaffolding could also be utilized when breaking down a larger concept for students. See how this model could potentially be utilized in a chemistry lesson surrounding intramolecular forces:

  1. “I Do” – The instructor creates an introductory lesson introducing intramolecular forces, and discusses the types of bonds that atoms can form (ionic, covalent, etc.). The instructor then shows examples of these types of bonds utilizing different atom types via medium of choice.
  2. “We Do” – This portion of the scaffolding could take place between students, working in pairs or small groups identifying the different types of bonds, and providing examples of each. This scaffolding could also include meeting with the instructor, via Teams or Zoom, or through a discussion that provides more of a ‘guided’ approach to the concepts.
  3. “You Do” – Students work on their own to display the learning that they have gathered on the topic. This could be done with a written assignment, discussion board post, low-stake quiz, or any way that the instructor chooses to assess students’ acquisition of knowledge.

These are just a couple of examples how you can integrate scaffolding into your course content for online learning. The critical aspect of scaffolding is purposeful chunking and segmenting of complex concepts and activities for comprehensive knowledge acquisition. It is important to keep in mind that any scaffolding should continue to be aligned to course expectations and learning outcomes as students will be more successful when it is done with consistency in a holistic sense.

If you would like to learn more about how to use scaffolding for online learning in your own course or have examples of how you are already using it, we’d love to hear from you! Feel free to contact the CATL office by email (CATL@uwgb.edu) to let us know where you’ve found success with these strategies, or to schedule a consultation with us.

Revising—and Reframing—Your Teaching Philosophy

Article by Tara DaPra, Assistant Teaching Professor & 2022-23 Instructional Development Consultant

Why should you write a teaching philosophy? Chances are, you already have, even if it was way back in graduate school or when you applied for the job you now hold. But if you are going up for promotion, as many of us in the teaching professor category may now do, or if—happy days—someone nominates you for a teaching award, your teaching philosophy may need updating. You may be dreading this. You may continually move it to the end of a long list of more pressing tasks. You may ask yourself if anyone will really read this. Leonard Cassuto says what many of us are thinking when he writes, “Teaching philosophies account for some of the most tiresome reading that academe has to offer (and that’s saying something).” But must they be? Rather than a chore or a high-stakes assessment, why not re-frame what a teaching philosophy can—or perhaps should—be? What if you instead treated your teaching philosophy as a celebration of your time in the classroom and a vision for the future?

In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, James Lang argues that teaching philosophies “fall under the genre of creative nonfiction,” a genre of writing that privileges techniques like voice, narrative arc, and compelling details while insisting on a non-negotiable commitment to the truth. Lang warns writers of teaching philosophies not to fall into the default mode we so often see in student writing—telling rather than showing. So instead of regurgitating your course learning objectives or points from your CV, Lang advises that we zoom in and describe a day when those objectives were lived in a particularly meaningful way. He writes, “Readers remember and respond to your stories, not your explanations.”

Another hallmark of creative nonfiction is to distinguish between what the writer knows and does not know—and to lean in to the latter. In her essay “Memory and Imagination,” Patricia Hampl writes, “It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know: I write in order to find out what I know.” Teaching philosophies are, essentially, a personal essay, a space for writers to puzzle over a complicated question and attempt to answer it from many angles. The word essay itself means “trial.” What, then, is the question you most want to discover, as it relates to your teaching? What parts of that question have you answered and what parts remain a mystery?

Writing a teaching philosophy can help us to reflect upon and articulate our ideas about what makes for effective teaching. And doing this can help to ensure that what we do in our classes is consistent with those beliefs—but it can also acknowledge pieces of the teaching puzzle that we have yet to fit together. And so, while teaching philosophies should certainly highlight a teacher’s strengths and successes, good teachers might also acknowledge what they hope to learn next.

If you’d like to read more about writing effective and reflective teaching philosophies, CATL has gathered some resources.